Imagination and courage – and Paul Keating

Paul Keating said that Winston Churchill inspired him to go into public life.  ‘If that’s the business he’s in, I’d love to be in that business.…  I was attracted to him for his braveness, sense of adventure, compulsion, and moral clarity.’  That last phrase, ‘moral clarity’, is an interesting proposition to come from one politician talking about another. ‘Leadership, after all, is as I have so often remarked, about two things: imagination and courage… Churchill had these qualities in spades.’   Keating admired his open ‘swashbuckling’ and ‘risk – taking’ approach to politics.  ‘He was the one who was not prepared to cede Western Europe to Hitler in order to save Britain, and it was on that moral point that I always found him to be so attractive a character.’  Well, there we have the word ‘moral’ again, and Churchill was, if nothing else, a big–picture leader, the phrase in the subtitle to the book Paul Keating by Troy Bramston.

Keating found an interest in music early in his life.  ‘The arts give expression to inner feelings and impulses in a way that I think sport, with all its greatness, can’t do.’  That remark is about as un-Australian as could ever have fallen from the mouth of any politician in Australia.  But the following remark of Keating is dead true: ‘One of the sad things about my colleagues is that few of them had an inner life.’  Sadly, their outer life isn’t too bloody flash either.

Music would always play a big part in Keating’s life.  ‘Music for the mind is like electricity for a motor. Later in life when he was at his busiest, he would spend forty-five minutes charging his motor up on say Brahms or Shostakovich.  ‘I would always go down to the office in a bigger spirit.  You’ve always got to walk in the door with your imagination working.’  That, too, is a very Keating remark.

During the time of the moratorium about the Vietnam War, Jim Cairns met Keating standing at the loo in Parliament House. He expressed regret that Paul wasn’t wearing his moratorium badge.  ‘Look, Jim, that’s the difference between you and me.  I’m not here to protest; I’m here to be in charge.’  There you have a very radical difference in perspective on the role of the Labor Party – on one side, one of Labor’s great successes; on the other, one of its quintessential tragedies.

Whitlam was something of a snob intellectually.  Someone close to him said that Gough believed that you could not make it without a degree.  He was always on to Keating to get a degree.  ‘Why?  Then I’d be just like you.’  On the other hand, Kim Beazley Senior looked at Keating and said: ‘You see that man.  Watch him, because he’s a political killer.’

At the first meeting of the caucus of the Whitlam Government in December 1972, 94 men assembled – there was not one woman.  The government may have looked radical to a lot of Australians who had been anaesthetised by Menzies, but it looks Neanderthal to us.  We forget now that the opposition to Medibank was such that it had to be put before a joint sitting.

It did not take long for Keating to establish his own profile.  In 1981, Jennifer Hewett described Keating as a ‘Hell’s Angel in a suit… Keating is so sharp it hurts.  Thought, speech, dress.  He’s never had much time for half measures, for wavering.  The lines are always clear, the intensity is always dazzling.  The overriding presence is of cool, supercool, leavened by a tongue that can strike like a snake’s and claws that can scratch like a tomcat’s.’

When Hawke got elected, there was some fear that Hawke might deny Keating the Treasury portfolio.  Keating told Graham Richardson: ‘You had better tell Hawke that if he wants to remove me from the Treasury portfolio, it will be the Harry Truman doctrine of massive retaliation.  And I do mean ‘massive”.  That is an authentically Keating position: and the reference is not to Harry Truman the man, but to the nuclear bombs he released over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Keating was referring to what others would later describe as the Hiroshima option.  The Labor Party has always had more than its share of good haters, and political assassins.

The first Hawke government had a very strong ministry.  Hewson would say it was probably the best front bench since World War II.  The cabinet of the workers’ party only had two members without a university education – Keating and Mick Young.  Keating was nervous at his first stint as Treasurer. He told Max Walsh: ‘You should be here, not me’.  Andrew Peacock could recall seeing the papers shaking in Keating’s hand as he stood at the dispatch box.  That bear pit is no place for boys or girls.  Especially if you had to face Keating on a bad day.

Charm is important in politics.  When Keating met Reagan he realised immediately why Reagan was so successful.  ‘He was a completely charming individual.  Only after you saw him actually doing what he did best, you realised what personal qualities he had used to get as far as he had got.  They were not intellectual qualities, but they were gentlemanly, gregarious, and humorous.’  This respect for Reagan, with the respect for Churchill, shows that Keating was not into typing or labelling, but rather dealing with individuals on their own merits.  That, some might think, is the mark of maturity.

A fundamental part of the success of the Hawke government was the way it worked with the unions.  Bill Kelty played a major part.  He said: ‘This is a fundamental period of restructuring in the economy.  These changes are going to be better for the country, but it’s not necessarily going to make it easier for you,’ he said to the unions.  ‘The majority of the unions accepted that argument.’  As Troy Bramston remarks: ‘This is a notion foreign to most contemporary union leaders’.  You bet – and to most oppositions.

The book is littered with references to Keating filing and commenting on items in the press.  This is not something that you could imagine Churchill doing.  It does suggest some kind of insecurity in the face of what might now be loosely referred to as the establishment or the elite.  The author notes the dislike for Murdoch within the Labor Party for its role in the fall of Whitlam, but says that at about the time when Keating made his reference to the banana republic, Keating reserved a particular disdain for Fairfax.

Keating got very close to the Australian historian Manning Clark.  His newspaper archive contains several of Clark’s essays that are heavily underlined.  He greatly admired Clark’s six volume A History of Australia.  Toward the end, Clark had written: ‘With the end of the domination by the straighteners, the enlargers of life now have their chance.’  Keating would frequently pick up a bundle of CDs and head over to Clark’s house where they would listen to music.  ‘I wanted to get a handle on Manning’s personality.  I wanted to understand how he had impacted on the country, what motivated him, what drove him.  I was interested in the resonances of his personality.’  It is not easy, offhand, to think of any other Australian politician doing anything remotely like that.

When Keating reached his famous agreement with Hawke about succession at Kirribilli House, Keating asked Kelty as they left the meeting whether he thought Hawke would keep the agreement.  ‘I doubt it.  It didn’t come naturally.  It didn’t come out of a negotiated process.  Hawke’s a negotiator.  You actually keep agreements out of a negotiated settlement.  But this wasn’t negotiated.  It was almost given flippantly as a statement.’  Well, at least Keating was on notice from the start that Hawke might welch, which he subsequently did.

When Keating finally moved on Hawke, those close to Hawke begged him to stand down.  Hawke gave the fatuous response that he would not give in to ‘terrorism’.  He may have forgotten what had happened to Hayden when he got deposed.  When the faction gathered in the office of Richardson, Stephen Loosely thought they looked like a group of rebels preparing for battle.  ‘People cleaning their rifles, checking the sites, and putting extra ammunition …… It’s a little bit like that scene in The Magnificent Seven where the bandits arrive at the village to find the seven ensconced and heavily armed.  I said if Hawkie walked in the door now, it would be like Eli Wallach saying ‘Who are you and why have you come?’  One of us would have to be Steve McQueen, mate, and look up and say, ‘We deal in lead, friend.”  Keating burst out laughing.

Keating won and Hawke cried.  Hawke promised not to ‘utter one word to harm Paul or his government.’  Other caucus members sobbed.  But unlike others who would be deposed in similar passion plays, Hawke by and large did keep that promise.

It is at this point that the author summarises the achievement of Keating as Treasurer.

In May 1991, Keating surpassed Ben Chifley’s record as a Labor treasurer.  His legacy as the most significant treasurer in the post-war era, if not since Federation, was secure.  No treasurer has presided over more significant economic reforms: the float of the dollar and the deregulation of the financial system; six iterations of the Accord that moderated wage increases and helped to contain inflation; fundamental change to the taxation system, including cutting marginal income – tax rates ( from 60% to 47%), slashing company tax (from 49% to 39%) and abolishing the double taxing of dividends by introducing imputation; industry – sector deregulation, reducing tariffs, and selling government assets; introducing compulsory superannuation; and delivering for surplus budgets – the first since the early 1950s – and decreasing expenditure in real terms.  Although the recession detracted from this scorecard, the economy was to emerge from it with a record 25 years of uninterrupted growth and low inflation.  And no treasurer had been more instrumental in the delivery of a government’s political messages, its overall narrative, and thus in its electoral successes.

That seems to me to be a very fair summary, but I am biased.  Prior to that reform of the tax system, I had been paying tax at about 66%, and provisional tax on that.  Since I was taxed on receipts, then if my receipts went up, I would have to pay about a $1.30 for every dollar I received over the level of the previous financial year.  This sort of madness led people into schemes to avoid paying tax which developed into a different level of madness.  But for reasons I have never understood, I had to wait for a Labor government to do something about either sort of madness that people who falsely called themselves conservatives had simply sat and watched over like bored tomcats.  And if you look at the efforts of our treasurers since Keating, it is hard to see anyone who might come even close.

We tend to forget now how important was the part played by Keating in developing the APEC conferences.  Keating floated the idea with Clinton and then developed it as part of his intense concentration on Asia.  Greg Sheridan wrote in The Australian: ‘It was a masterful and effective performance by Keating and must be one of the few occasions in Australian diplomatic history when an Australian Prime Minister has engaged in effective shuttle diplomacy.’  When the 18 APEC leaders met, they represented more than half the world’s GDP.  In his memoirs, Clinton would claim responsibility for what Keating had done.

We tend to forget now how backward those we refer to as the Coalition could be.  Do you recall that paranoid furore when Keating guided the Queen through a door?  The Queen was so disturbed by the hysteria of the tabloid press that she raised the matter directly with Keating.  She said: ‘Take no notice of them.’  ‘Your Majesty, a British tabloid editor is a particularly low form of human life.’  Her Majesty laughed.

But when Keating took exception to having a British flag in ours, Hewson and the rest of the opposition expressed outrage.  When Parliament resumed, they ringed their desks with small plastic flags.  John Howard had referred to the golden age of the 1950’s.  This led to the signature annihilation of all that Howard stood for then and later.  You can get it on You Tube as the cultural cringe speech.  After bursts of comedy that are serene, we get:

I was told that I did not learn respect at school.  I learned one thing: I learned about self-respect and self-regard for Australia – not about some cultural cringe to a country which decided not to defend the Malayan peninsular, not to worry about Singapore, and not to give us our troops back to keep ourselves free from Japanese domination.  This was the country that you people tethered yourselves too, and even as it walked out on you and joined the Common Market, you are still looking for your MBEs and your knighthoods and all the rest of the regalia that comes with it.  You could take Australia right back down the time tunnel to the cultural cringe where you have always come from… These are the same old fogies who doffed their heads and tug the forelock to the British establishment; they now try to grind down Australian kids by denying them a technical school education and want to put a tax on the back of the poor.  The same old sterile ideology, the same old fogeyism  of the 1950s that produced the Thatcherite policies of the late 1970s is going to produce Fightback!  We will not have a bar of it.  You can go back to the 50s to your nostalgia, your Menzies, the Caseys, and the whole lot.  They were not aggressively Australian, they were not aggressively proud of our culture, and we will have no bar of you or your sterile ideology.

It was pure mayhem, and it says a lot for the magical powers of Shostakovich.  When Hewson asked Keating why he wouldn’t call an election, he got the celebrated reply: ‘The answer is, mate, I want to do you slowly.  There has to be a bit of sport in this for all of us.  In the psychological battle stakes, we are stripped down and ready to go.  I want to see those ashen-faced performances; I want more of them.’  It is a blood sport. The nastiness went both ways.  Hewson was intent on smearing Keating over the famous piggery.

The ultimate political goal is to inflict fatal damage on P K’s credibility in the eyes of the voting public (if this is what the merits of the matter justify).  We are seeking to expose a conflict of interest in circumstances that give rise to a grave suspicion that there may have been improper or reprehensible conduct on the part of PK.  We are not alleging actual impropriety, only the possibility of impropriety.

Well, if you going to do a knife job, you might at least have the courtesy to be honest about it.  This is just weasel gutlessness.

In the campaign, Keating lacerated Hewson and Howard.  ‘Even Marie Antoinette didn’t put GST on a cake’.  In the end, Keating enjoyed his sweetest triumph, the triumph for the true believers.  Later he would get to taunt Downer.  ‘How are you going over there Curly’….or old darling or Shirley Temple?

Perhaps the strongest part of the book is in its treatment of Keating’s efforts on behalf of indigenous Australians.  The Redfern speech is treated at length.  More importantly, the author makes it plain that Keating used all his political capital and political experience to get through legislation on native title against the opposition, the mining industry, most of primary industry, the states, and a lack of interest in parts of his own party.  He was careful in selecting the correct allies. One asked Keating what his attitude was.  ‘Well, basically, I reckon for 200 years we’ve been sneaking around in someone else’s backyard.’  ‘Shit, that sounds alright then.  You’re on my wavelength.’  The author says this:

No other Prime Minister had ever paid such a high priority on indigenous issues.  It was more than just a priority.  Keating was so involved in native-title negotiations that he effectively micro-managed it.  This was not design, but by necessity.  It was the High Court that made the Mabo judgement and it demanded a response from government.  But for this response to prove durable, it had to win broad acceptance from stakeholders and then passage through the Senate.  This required prime ministerial authority, and Keating set about using it.  He engaged directly with indigenous leaders, farmers, and miners.  He ran a cabinet process.  He carried the debate in the media.  And he negotiated directly with the states and the Senate cross bench, while fighting a protracted battle against the Coalition.  The odds were stacked against him, but Keating worked the political system to produce an outcome.  This was achieved while diminishing Keating’s political capital, and was of nil political benefit.  Keating brought indigenous issues from the margins of politics to the centre of government, where it has remained in the decades since.

The key here is the observation that this heroic exercise diminished Keating’s political capital and ‘was of nil political benefit’.  If that assessment is fair – and it looks fair to me – Keating stands well above other political leaders of our time in this country.   There is blue sky between him and them.

But Labor had been on power too long.  It gave way to a man who would redefine our ideas of mediocrity.  Keating was hurt by the loss, but more hurt by the separation from his wife.  After the election loss, he invited Howard to the Lodge for a cup tea.  No outgoing prime minster had shown that courtesy. ‘I thought it was important for the sake of the country, and the polity, that the Prime Minister who is leaving The Lodge doesn’t leave it as some sort of vacant possession.  I wanted the country to see and witness a generous and healthy change of government.  I showed him around, and I said some things to him which I thought were important to say.’  It is both curious and sad that no former Prime Minister had apparently thought of this.

What is the biggest regret of Keating for Labor leaders after him?  ‘While ever we borrow the monarch of another country as our head of state, we will never be as great as we are entitled to be.  It has always been a matter of wonderment to me that my colleagues could not see that.  They don’t think it is important, because they do not get the spiritual essence of what the change to a republic meant.  It means that we will be a society to our self.’

What other Australian politician speaks of the spiritual essence of a society to our self?

4 thoughts on “Imagination and courage – and Paul Keating

  1. The interesting thing about the Cultural Cringe speech is that nearly all the bit you write down in this column was not actually pre-written in the response he had set-up to the Dorothy Dixer. The stuff about the old Parliament House, the 2 Johns, the time tunnel was all written beforehand, but he just got wound up and got more angry after a couple of interjections and let loose with the Malayan Pensinsula, Singapore, doth your lids, Common Market section, none of that was pre-planned, that was just Keating Unplugged letting decades of rage at what he saw as the Menzies torpor just spill out of him

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